Sunday, June 1, 2008


Half a century of photography, half a hundred exhibit books and still going strong—David Muench has a new book of the work that has made him a world treasure

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Lukachukai Country. Red sandstone buttes reach into sky space, Navajo Nation. Linhof 4x5, 75mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia
Resting on the dust jacket, inviting you in, is a sublime, graphical image of a huge window in solid rock. Through the sailboat-shaped opening in the massive sandstone wall, earth's old friend the moon rides full and crisp through a rich magenta wash of middusk sky. Higher up, scarlet hues ease into cool vermillion.

One deep band of milky purple, the postsunset line, anchors the bottom of the window. And there, a small rounded boulder, of the same ruddy burgundy as the surrounding rock, perches on the ledge of the opening, as if deliberately placed.

Perhaps the enigmatic rock has been there for 10,000 years. Perhaps it rolled to rest the day before the Linhof 4x5's shutter clicked in 1997. How long will it guard the portal? Another day? Another millennium? That, as David Muench would say, is entirely the idea.

The image, "Moonrise, White Mesa Arch, Navajo Land," pulls the viewer into one of Muench's classic, timeless moments. Contemplating this gateway, we become time-travellers with broken clocks. We feel we could go anywhere, be anywhen.

Moonrise, White Mesa Arch, Navajo Land. The event of moonrise and earth shadow rising through the sandstone brings a wonderful spirit of harmony to any evening. Linhof 4x5, 300mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia
"Moonrise" informs the classical photographic enigma of how to make ancient rock, worn by wind and rain, anchor the touchable present, yet also frame the infinite.

The image invites mystery as well: What's on the other side? "Step through the sail-shaped sandstone door," it whispers, "and treat yourself to the layers of earth's vast mystery."

And so you open the book, titled simply Arizona (Graphic Arts Books, 2007), to begin a celebration that transcends mere retrospective.

"The book is about revisiting Arizona," says Muench. "It reveals the multiple layers of my life in photography, the ideas and personal themes I wanted to show in my work."

Arizona thus becomes its own timeless moment. Early 1950s compositions of the iconic, grand landscape share space with recent 35mm images of magenta-tinted morning snowscapes and penlight-lit, glowing rock petroglyphs.

And There Was Light
Arizona sets the photography free to tell its own story, without the guidance of text other than Muench's own one-page introduction.

He begins by reporting a singular event: "On July 3, 1948 the first party ever to arrive by air-driven boat came up the Colorado River from Lee's Ferry. The 64-mile trip through the magnificent scenery of Glen Canyon was climaxed by the hike up to see Rainbow—the World's Greatest Natural Bridge."

The boat captain's log lists the following passengers: Josef Muench, Joyce R. Muench and David Muench.

Muench's late father Josef, esteemed as a top landscape photographer for 50 years, was an early, lifelong contributor of iconic imagery to Arizona Highways.

Although Muench was only 12 when he made that boat trip into breathtaking Glen Canyon (drowned years later by the dam that created Lake Powell), he had already dogged his father's trailblazing footsteps for a decade.

"I started photographing as a kid. My dad gave me an Ikoflex Zeiss camera, 2 ¼ format. I remember doing color with it, though I started out with black-and-white."

Before long, he gravitated to a Graphic View and a Speed Graphic, both 4x5 cameras. The format became a lifelong favorite.

Morning Fog, Woods Canyon Lake. Linhof 4x5, Kodak Ektachrome
The Soul's Path
Every son must, in some way, overthrow the influence of his father if he is to find his own way. David Muench was no exception. Yet he was no rebellious firebrand. Learning at his father's side, he endured the hardships of all apprentices en route to their own careers.

"On these trips, I was expected to help." He adds with a chuckle, "It was disciplinary." Sometimes the thankless grunt work of loading film magazines became a sweaty exercise under a dark blanket in the back of the family car. And then there were the day hikes.

"Dad didn't mind going out in the middle of nowhere when it was 100 degrees F by 9 a.m. He was from the old country," he laughs. "You'll see German tourists on your normal 118-degree Death Valley day, and they love it. My dad was kind of like that."

But Muench, the younger, heard a different calling. "I dropped the midday hikes because often you didn't get up to some place until noon."

It wasn't that he minded the sweltering rigors. It was missing all that golden light that bothered him.


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